Endings, Pt. 4: Delivering on the Theme

When people think about incorporating theme, it can conjure cringe-worthy images of characters preaching to each other about the author’s intentions and cornily weaving in a “moral” that leaves readers feeling condescended to. One of my favorite comedy duos, BriTANicK, put up a video called “Academy Award Winning Movie Trailer,” in which they parody overused tropes in movies. The last line of the video has the hero and love interest sitting by the fire, and the hero says pensively, “Explicitly stating the moral of the story, and awkwardly working in — ” (beat) ” — the movie title.”

But even when done artfully, theme always sounds like something that’s more important to high-brow literary novels than to us genre types. I’ve found, though, that the fictional endings that stick with me most, that leave me pondering them for hours, days, weeks, are the ones that deliver on the story’s thematic promise. Bookending, character arcs, and plot resolution via a final battle all help create an ending that delivers on the promises you’ve made your readers. When you can include a thematic element to it, which is often accomplished through each of those techniques and more, it will leave an indelible mark on the reading life of anyone who picks up your book. However, the flip side of that is that you can create an ending that incites homicidal rage if it undercuts the theme of the rest of the story. Continue reading


Radical by David Platt: Review, Thoughts, and a Call to Action

Last night, I finished reading the book Radical by David Platt. You’ll probably recognize it by the cover if you click on the link: it’s the book with the bright orange cover and the subtitle, “Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.” It lives up to its title and its subtitle, too–this book is not for the faint of heart.

What really gets me about this book is not necessarily just how convicting it is–there are plenty of books that are–but how specifically it calls us to action. The first chunk of the book is paradigm-shifting, to be sure, but what really gives this book its strength is the practical plan it lays out at the end for taking action on that conviction. Radical challenges you to look at the gospel the way it really is, not the way you want it to be. It is a brave, insightful, and completely practical book, but in a way that could radically change your life. Continue reading

Adventures in lunacy

As some of you know, a couple of weeks ago, I embarked on a very short-lived adventure/experiment. I had been reading this book called More or Less by Jeff Shinabarger (which, incidentally, I very much recommend to anyone and everyone). The purpose of the book is essentially to get you to re-think what is enough in your own life and to learn what to do with the excess. In order to accomplish this, Shinabarger uses something he calls “social experiments,” in which you start with a hypothesis, usually about something you or people in general have that is excess and you don’t need, and then you perform an experiment to test this hypothesis and to stand in solidarity with those who don’t have as much as you do.

I read the book and naturally wanted to do something about. What, I thought, was something I didn’t want to give up but could probably go without? My conclusion: my laptop. I wouldn’t get rid of it, but I wanted to see if I could go forty days without using it. Now, that’s not without using any computer, just using my own laptop. I reasoned that on such a tech-savvy campus (I go to Carnegie Mellon University, for those of you who don’t know), I should be able to go without having a personal computer. There are computer clusters everywhere, designed to help out people who don’t have computers or don’t/can’t carry them to campus every day. Continue reading

No more yielding but a dream

The week before last, my Shakespeare class finished up our study of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I adore Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s brilliant. We finished up our study discussing the use of dream imagery in the end of play, when everyone (except for Oberon and Puck, of course) is sort of confused, and Puck has his concluding monologue.

It made me think about something: I really hate cop-out endings. You know, “It was all a dream.” This is very decidedly not what happens in Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it made me think of it. For example, I read this book that I really liked called The Secret to Lying. Really liked, that is, until the ending. Basically, the main character was leading two different lives: one while he was awake in the world, another in another world while he was asleep here. It’s apparently a fairly common concept. But the resolution was that his other life, despite connections to and interferences with the real world, had been only a dream. That’s all. No mental illness, no mysticism. Just some dreams. Continue reading

A Visit with an Old Friend

Rereading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time in several years is like a nostalgic conversation with an old friend whom I haven’t seen in a very long time. As I read through the first few chapters, I can’t help but think, I’d forgotten how little we were.

I think I was about Harry’s age, perhaps a bit younger, when I first began to read the series in earnest. But then, we weren’t so very little. We were both too old for our age, I for my mind and he for his courage, wit, and strength. I tried to read the first book once when I was younger than that, but I couldn’t get past the first chapter. The Dursleys bored me. Of course, the Dursleys bored Harry, too. But we both eventually found a way out.

I find myself with warm feelings as if I were looking at old photographs when letters begin to shoot through the fireplace and my first new friend in that world after Harry, Hagrid, finally appears to tear away the dreary lie. Right now, I’m only at the end of the chapter just before Harry discovers that Hagrid is the one about to break into the cabin, but I’m already looking forward to revisiting everyone back when they were all so innocent. Continue reading

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

C. S. Lewis

In Defense of Unpopular Books

I was in a conversation the other day about some incongruous detail in a novel someone else had read. It was rather nit-picky, but we were discussing suspension of disbelief and the effect inaccuracies in fiction have on the reader. One of the guys were talking with dismissed the discrepancy as unimportant because the novel was a fluff piece and “just a vampire romance Twilight knock-off.”

Now, it’s one thing to make fun of a book, or even a whole genre. But goodness help ye who should dismiss a book or a genre. Because, here’s the thing: you may think it’s childish and poorly written. You may think it’s immature and two-dimensional. But chances are, if it’s published, someone, somewhere has been affected by it. This is someone’s curl-up-under-the-covers book. This is someone’s maybe-I’m-not-alone book. Just because it’s a category romance or a YA fantasy doesn’t invalidate the time that it allowed someone, just for a little while, to be someplace else.

A book is a book is a book. Not to say they’re all the same, but to say they’re all valid. If it has been published, someone, and probably many someones, have poured their hearts and souls and lives into it. Just because it’s not important to you doesn’t mean it’s not important to anybody.

So be careful the next time you dismiss a book because of what it’s called or where it’s shelved. Be careful when you judge someone based on reading material you think is “unintelligent.” Who knows? You could be the next person cradling a disreputable novel and being inexplicably enchanted by the words on the page. It may be riddled with grammatical errors, it may have a far-fetched plot, it may rely on unrealistic characters and wooden dialogue, but all it takes is that one unexplainable moment of resonance. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you are finished reading one, you will feel that it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and the sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

Ernest Hemingway